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Why Portland Trail Blazers Can’t Move Forward

The league is populated with amazing wings. The Blazers lag behind.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the modern NBA, forwards like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George have set the archetype for excellence. Meanwhile Carmelo Anthony spanned the iso-heavy early-2000s to the pace-and-space 2010s with 20 ppg seasons. Today shiny new forwards like Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, and Otto Porter Jr. try to keep up while waiting for their chance to evolve the position. Amid the sparkle, 9 out of 10 analysts agree that when the league put its weight on the wing, the Portland Trail Blazers didn’t keep up:

Let’s reflect on the personnel moves that have gotten the Blazers where they are today:

In 2015 Portland lost experience and skill in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, triggering a reset at the wing position. The draft would’ve been the place to find an heir, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson lasted two seconds. Heir apparent Will Barton was shipped off in a desperate move at the deadline, then his replacement (Arron Afflalo) bolted.

Neil Olshey rebuilt his wing rotation by landing Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless in trades, acquiring Pat Connaughton on draft night, and signing Al-Farouq Aminu, who was never was a consistent starter beforehand.

Throw in the big Summer ‘16 signing of Evan Turner, and the drafting of Jake Layman, while taking away Henderson, Allen Crabbe, and Justin Jackson (in a draft night trade), and we arrive at the 2017-18 Blazers wing rotation.

How Does Portland Stack Up?

The Blazers’ starting wings have been in flux this season. Turner has gone from second-unit mainstay to starter the last nine games. Aminu missed time with injury. Harkless underwhelmed and saw a demotion in late November, then returned to action to lead his team to victory against the Los Angeles Lakers just before Christmas. Connaughton has notched five starts this season. Layman even started one of Portland’s two Damian Lillard-less games.

Measuring the Aminu-Turner-Harkless trio, who have the top three minutes per game averages among Portland’s wings, against the league isn’t pretty. The trio combines for 22.7 points per game. Here are some examples of wing production around the league:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo/Khris Middleton/Tony Snell (58.7 ppg)
  • DeMar DeRozan/CJ Miles/OG Anunoby (41.7 ppg)
  • Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum/Marcus Morris (40 ppg)

Of course, these players come from top teams. The Bucks (17-14), Raptors (23-8), and Celtics (27-10) are not the Blazers (17-16), and comparing them to Portland is bound to have discrepancies. But even bottom-feeders have strengths at the wing:

  • Aaron Gordon/Evan Fournier/Jonathon Simmons (51.9 ppg)
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson/Demare Carroll/Allen Crabbe (40 ppg)
  • Tyreke Evans/Dillon Brooks/James Ennis (33.5 ppg)

Those trios come from the Magic (11-23), Nets (12-20), and Grizzlies (10-23). Even the worst team in the league, Atlanta (8-25), gets 36 ppg from Taurean Prince/Kent Bazemore/Marco Belinelli.

Portland’s backcourt factors into their bottom-rung forward production. The offense goes through Lillard and CJ McCollum. Ending a possession with one of those two shooting is smart. Teams like the Magic or Nets scramble for production from whomever, while teams like the Bucks or Celtics make their wings a focal point of the offense.

With this guard focus, Portland still wins games—but if they want to compete, getting productive wings becomes imperative.

Even with the focus on Lillard/McCollum, there’s no reason the Blazers can’t find the wing of their future. Just look at the Wizards: After putting John Wall and Bradley Beal together, they added Otto Porter Jr. in the draft. The Bucks gave Khris Middleton, a throw-in trade piece, an opportunity and he’s blossomed from former bench afterthought into a 20.8 ppg scorer today.

The Future of the Wing Positions in Portland

Aminu shows promise on offense if he can become a real 3-point threat. He’s shooting 44.1 percent this season compared to 33.4 percent for his career. But he’s headed for free agency in 2019 and, barring trades, the Blazers will still be on the hook for Harkless and Turner then. Even Pat Connaughton, who now registers as a significant contributor, is an impending free agent and could bolt this offseason.

Until a major change comes—and they need one soon—Portland will continue to bleed Lillard and McCollum dry for production while expensive wings bleed Portland’s cap space dry. As much as anything, that dual leak of production and salary keeps the Blazers mired in mediocrity despite their talented guards and world-class payroll.

*All stats and records courtesy of Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Dec. 25.